Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Conditions of use


Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Early New Zealand Botanical Art

V — William Curtis's Botanical Magazine

page 61

William Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Curtis's Botanical Magazine is the oldest surviving colour-illustrated journal. The first volume was published in London in February 1787 with the title Botanical Magazine: or Flower-Garden Displayed by William Curtis (1746-99). It has become, in the words of Wilfrid Blunt (The Art of Botanical Illustration), "a national institution of which Englishmen may justly be proud". Curtis's aim was to produce a scientifically accurate, coloured magazine for those interested in botany and horticulture, to illustrate and describe "the most ornamental foreign plants", thereby introducing them to gardeners. New Zealand plants were not neglected, and by 1973, 135 of our native plants, from forty-three families, had been illustrated. In some instances, as with the rengarenga or rock lily (Arthropodium cirratum) and the whau, Entelea arborescens (Plate 1), the first published description appeared in Botanical Magazine. It is something of an anachronism, for until volume 165 (April to December 1948) all the plates had been coloured by hand, apart from a few chromolithographs in one issue. From 1950 onwards, a costly, four-colour gravure process has been used, which gives results close to those obtained by hand-colouring. For many years one could obtain uncoloured copies and save money — thus, in 1911, "Monthly, price 3-f. 6d. coloured, 2s. 6d. plain".

William Curtis

Curtis was born in Alton, a town in Hampshire where Jane Austen lived for ten years. His home has been converted into a small museum in his memory. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to the local apothecary, his grandfather. He therefore began to study plants for their medicinal properties, although it is said he caught the "botanical disease" from a literate plant enthusiast, who was a stableman at the Crown Inn next to his grandfather's shop. At the end of his apprenticeship, William Curtis, aged twenty, moved to London and worked, first as an assistant, then as a partner, in an apothecary's practice in Gracechurch Street. Before long, Curtis sold his share of the business so that he could more readily pursue his obsessional interests in natural history. He purchased land for a garden, at first at page 62 Bermondsey, and spent his time collecting, reading, gardening and exchanging ideas with other naturalists. In 1773, at the comparatively young age of twenty-seven, he was appointed garden superintendent and botanical demonstrator to the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea, an office he held for four years. He resigned the post to give himself more time for gardening and writing. He wrote a book on insects, and translated and illustrated a book on the same topic by Linnaeus. Then he decided to start his own botanical garden, which, after several moves, was finally established at a pleasant site at Brompton, where he maintained it till he died. The gardens eventually contained more than 6,000 species and were divided into various sections — medicinal, culinary, agricultural, poisonous, British and ornamental plants. For an annual subscription of a guinea, admission was gained to the gardens and to lectures he gave there, which attracted large audiences. For two guineas a year, subscribers received a share of plants and seeds as they became available for distribution. Curtis received plants from a number of sources, including Kew Gardens and Sir Joseph Banks.

Six years after his death, Curtis's lectures were published in the form of three illustrated volumes by his son-in-law, and their popularity was such that a second edition appeared two years later. William Curtis was an indefatigable writer. His books included A History of the Brown-tail Moth (1782) and Practical Observations on the British Grasses (1790), which ran to several editions. He was almost ruined financially when he started an ambitious project, the Flora Londinensis. The purpose of this was to describe and illustrate plants that grew within a ten-mile radius of London. In 1777, the same year in which he resigned from his post at Chelsea, the first part of Flora Londinensis appeared. For ten years he persevered with this task, but by 1787, when another volume appeared, he was almost bankrupt. Clearly, people were not very interested in buying illustrated accounts of the modest wayside plants of Britain. They might well, however, wish to purchase a magazine featuring the exotic plants they were including in their gardens. After all, it was "the golden age of botany" and collectors were travelling the world in search of new exotics to introduce into Britain. So, the Botanical Magazine was initiated and it became "a botanical and publishing phenomenon".

The magazine

Three thousand copies of the first part, with three plates, were sold at a shilling each. This circulation figure was maintained throughout Curtis's life. The price of subsequent issues and the number of plates fluctuated over the years; on average about forty-five plates were issued each year. Each plate was accompanied by a concise description of salient botanical details of the plant (in Latin), its various names, habitat, time of flowering and notes on its cultivation (all in English). Although William Curtis wrote the text and had some abilities as a draughtsman, he did not, it now seems, draw any of the plants himself.

page 63

Nearly all of the first 1,200 plates were the work of Sydenham Edwards (1769?-1819). Curtis brought Edwards, then a youth living in Southampton, to London after hearing of his artistic abilities from a friend. Sydenham Teaste Edwards, who was the son of a Welsh schoolmaster, was specially trained for the purpose of illustrating the Botanical Magazine. He has been described as "one of the most skilful delineators of plants England has produced". The first New Zealand plant to be illustrated in the Magazine — the kowhai, Soph or a tetraptera — was done by Edwards and appeared in volume 5, 1791 (Plate 13). About seventy plates in the first four volumes were the work of James Sowerby, a distinguished artist and engraver and a scientist of wide interests, who was the first of a family of botanical artists who were active for nearly a century. Sydenham Edwards became William Curtis's constant companion on botanical excursions and continued as sole regular artist of the Magazine until 1815, sixteen years after Curtis's death. Wherf comparing his early drawings with later ones, one can see an improvement in his style, with greater realism as he developed a better idea of the structure and habit of plants. His work is pleasingly composed and accurate, with clear colouring.

For about the first seventy years of its existence, the plates for Botanical Magazine were engraved on copper. At first Edwards did his own engravings, but within a few years a Mr F. Sansom was employed as engraver. Sansom also drew about eight plates for the Magazine. As well as having the services of an engraver, Curtis employed a colourist, William Graves, whose task was to faithfully hand-colour the several thousand copies of each issue from Edwards' original painting. Nearly two hundred years later the colours are still fresh, except for some deterioration in instances where lead pigments were used for whites and some reds. The Magazine was of quite small format, about 5x9 inches (13x23 centimetres), but some plates were larger as they folded out, for example, the orchid Pterostylis banksii (Plate 15).

On William Curtis's death, the copyright of the Magazine passed to his son-in-law, Samuel Curtis, who was also his cousin. A medical friend of William Curtis, Dr John Sims, became general manager and editor (1801-26). When Sydenham Edwards severed his connection with the Magazine, apparently as the result of a misunderstanding, various artists were engaged. They included John Curtis, an entomologist — not, it seems, related to William Curtis — who illustrated the first published description of the rengarenga, Arthropodium cirratum, in the 1822 issue. His illustrations did not reach the standards set by Edwards.

In 1826 William Jackson Hooker took over the direction of Curtis's Botanical Magazine from John Sims and was also responsible for the illustrations for the next ten years. When he took over the Magazine, its popularity and circulation had declined. William Hooker was then professor of botany at Glasgow University, and with his great abilities as a botanist and an artist, the fortunes of the Magazine improved. He had a distinctive style and was able to enlist the services of talented colourists (Plate 14).

page 64

Such people needed the ability to accurately copy the colours of the original painting and the patience to colour in several thousand copies of the same illustration. In 1834 Walter Hood Fitch (1817-92) began to relieve Hooker of the task of preparing the illustrations and soon became the sole artist, a position he held until 1877. Walter Fitch, of East Anglian stock, was born in Glasgow and, like Scotsman John Buchanan, began his career as an apprentice designer of textile fabrics. In the evenings he did work for Hooker at the university, mounting plants for the herbarium. William Hooker was so impressed with some botanical drawings Fitch had copied that he offered him a job and instructed him in botanical drawing. Hooker also made use of the talents of Francis (Franz) Bauer, a German, whose brother Ferdinand was equally famous as a botanical artist. Bauer had been encouraged to become a draughtsman at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, by Sir Joseph Banks. He illustrated one of New Zealand's best-known orchids, Pterostylis banksii (Plate 15), commonly known as the large greenhood orchid or tutukiwi. Wilfrid Blunt unhesitatingly considered him "the greatest botanical artist of all time". When William Hooker became director of the newly nationalised Royal Botanic Gardens in 1841, Walter Fitch accompanied him to Kew. The connection that was thereby established between Kew and Curtis's Botanical Magazine has been maintained to the present day. A large proportion of the plants illustrated in the Magazine were growing at Kew.

In 1845 the connection between the Curtis family and the magazine was severed when Messrs Lovell Reeve took over the copyright and were its publishers until 1920. From the mid-1840s lithography replaced engraved illustrations, and Walter Fitch prepared his own lithographs.

Plate 15 Pterostylis banksii (tutukiwi or greenhood orchid)

This illustration, a fold-out one in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, is no. 3172 in volume 59, 1832. The painting is by Francis Bauer, whom Wilfrid Blunt (The Art of Botanical Illustration) considered the greatest botanical artist of all time. The text, by William Hooker and Allan Cunningham, described this species for the first time. There are some sixty species of Pterostylis, of which nineteen occur in New Zealand. Some of these occur in Australia too. The greenhood orchids appear above ground in late winter in the north and into summer in the south, sprouting from underground tubers. They flower, fruit and die back within six months. Pterostylis banksii is the most widespread of the New Zealand species and varies considerably in size. It is found in the North and South Islands and on Stewart Island and the Chathams too, usually in damp shady areas. The plant illustrated was collected by Allan Cunningham from the Bay of Islands in 1826. Cunningham related that he took it from Sydney to Kew, where it was planted but "long supposed to be dead, when, to the surprise of all of us, it has thrown up a perfect flower-stem, which I carried to Mr. Bauer, who has not only made a beautiful drawing of it, but has most kindly permitted me to send it to you [William Hooker] to publish in the Botanical Magazine."

Figure 1, flower, a little smaller than natural size; figure 2, 3, front and side views of the labellum of the flower, about natural size; figures 4 to 8, other parts of the flower, magnified; figure 9, a magnified transverse section of the ovary; figure 10, enlarged pollen grains (about 500-times magnification).

page break
Plate 15 Pterostylis banksii A. Cunn. in Hook. Francis Bauer (in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1832)

Plate 15 Pterostylis banksii A. Cunn. in Hook. Francis Bauer (in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1832)

page 65

Plate 16 Hebe lavaudiana

It is appropriate that a species of Hebe (also known as Veronica) should be illustrated, for with some eighty species it is New Zealand's largest genus of flowering plants. A number of hebes have appeared in Curtis's Botanical Magazine. H. lavaudiana was illustration no. 7210 in the December 1891 issue. Matilda Smith did the painting from which John Fitch made the lithograph. Sir Joseph Hooker wrote the text to accompany the plate. He noted that numerous New Zealand hebes (members of the snap-dragon or foxglove family, Scrophulariaceae) were being introduced through the agency of Mr Armstrong of the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. Hooker pointed out that hebes are "the prominent botanical feature of the under-shrubbery of the New Zealand Archipelago, from the Northern Cape to the Antarctic Islands". Hebe lavaudiana was discovered in 1840 at Akaroa by Etienne Raoul, surgeon on board I'Aube, who named it in honour of his captain, C. F. Lavaud. Hebe lavaudiana, a small, semi-woody shrub up to forty centimetres high, now occurs only on rocky parts of Banks Peninsula. It once grew naturally also on river beds of the Canterbury Plains.

Figure 1, enlarged flower; figure 2, bracts and sepals (petals removed) and central style with terminal stigma; figure 3, petals and stamens; figures 4 and 5, stamen in internal and external view.

page break
Plate 16 Hebe lavaudiana (Raoul) Ckn. et Allan Matilda Smith (in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1891)

Plate 16 Hebe lavaudiana (Raoul) Ckn. et Allan Matilda Smith (in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1891)

Plate 17 Gentiana concinna (Auckland Islands gentian)

The gentians are a widespread group of plants, some annuals, others perennials, which are especially common in alpine regions of both hemispheres. World wide there are some 400 species, twenty-four of which occur in the New Zealand botanical region, which includes Auckland, Campbell and the Antipodes Islands. An unusual feature of most New Zealand gentians is that they have white-to-cream flowers, in contrast to the more showy flowers of some other regions. This may be related to the insects that pollinate them. The Auckland Islands gentians, G cerina (a perennial) and G. concinna (an annual), have white petals that are streaked with red or purplish veins. The painting and lithograph by Walter Fitch, published in Flora Antarctica, was based on drawings by Joseph Hooker.

Figure 1, flower; figure 2, flower with petals removed; figure 3, petal tube removed from flower; figure 4, petals laid open; figures 5 to 7, stamens; figure 8, pollen grains; figure 9, ovary; figure 10, an ovary shown in longitudinal section; figure 11, fruit; figure 12, seeds. All magnified.

page break
Plate 17 Gentiana concinna Hook. f. Walter Fitch (Auckland Islands gentian) (in J. D. Hooker's Flora Antarctica)

Plate 17 Gentiana concinna Hook. f. Walter Fitch (Auckland Islands gentian) (in J. D. Hooker's Flora Antarctica)

Plate 18 Ranunculus pinguis (Auckland and Campbell Islands buttercup)

This buttercup (family Ranunculaceae) has two forms, one larger than the other. Joseph Hooker found it to be widely distributed on Campbell Island in boggy and rocky places from sea level to mountain tops (ca. 350 metres altitude). It grows also on the Auckland Islands. There are thirty-five native species of Ranunculus in New Zealand and the outlying islands, and a further twelve exotic species have become established as weeds since the time of European settlement. Ranunculus is a cosmopolitan genus and there are about 400 species world wide. The painting and lithograph by Walter Fitch, published in Flora Antarctica, are based on Hooker's sketches.

The plant at upper left is in flower, the central one has two fruit heads. Figure 1, a sepal; figures 2 to 4, petals; figure 5, a stamen; figure 6, an immature fruit; figure 7, a sectioned fruit, showing the single, central seed.

page break
Plate 18 Ranunculus pinguis Hook. f. Walter Fitch (Auckland and Campbell Islands buttercup) (in J. D. Hooker's Flora Antarctica)

Plate 18 Ranunculus pinguis Hook. f. Walter Fitch (Auckland and Campbell Islands buttercup) (in J. D. Hooker's Flora Antarctica)

page 66

Sir William Hooker continued as editor of Botanical Magazine until his death in 1865, when he was succeeded both as editor and as director of Kew by his son, Joseph Dalton Hooker. Although Joseph Hooker was then forty-eight years old, he was editor for forty years. He wrote most of the text during his term as editor, but from time to time other Kew staff contributed articles. With Joseph Hooker's strong interest in the New Zealand flora, a considerable number of our plants were illustrated in Botanical Magazine during this time. Sir Joseph maintained the high standard that his father had set for the Magazine. When Walter Fitch resigned his position at Kew in 1877 after a dispute with his employers, he had had some 10,000 drawings published, approximately 3,000 of which had been in Curtis's Botanical Magazine. His late employer, Sir Joseph Hooker, had praised his "unrivalled skill in seizing the natural character of a plant... I don't think that Fitch could make a mistake in his perspective and outline . . . even if he tried." Wilfrid Blunt also noted that, all things considered, Walter Fitch was the most outstanding botanical artist of his day in Europe. He was, like John Buchanan, elected a fellow of the Linnean Society. Fitch's only published written work was a series of articles on botanical drawing, published in the Gardeners' Chronicle in 1869 and reprinted as an appendix to Blunt's The Art of Botanical Illustration (1951). The articles are excellent, as useful today to any aspiring botanical artist as when they were written. Late in his life the government acknowledged Fitch's contributions to botany by awarding him a Civil List pension.

Within a year, Walter Fitch was replaced as the Magazines artist by Matilda Smith, and as its lithographer by his nephew, John Nugent Fitch (see chapter XV). Miss Smith contributed about 2,300 plates (the last in 1923), and John Fitch prepared nearly 2,500 lithographs (the last in 1920).

Subsequent history

Although the subsequent history of Botanical Magazine is outside the timespan of this book, it seems worthwhile for me to summarise it. When Sir Joseph Hooker relinquished the editorship in 1904, he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, who was by then director of Kew. Two years later he was succeeded as editor by the new director, Sir David Prain, who remained the editor until 1920. In that year Lovell Reeve & Co. announced they could not continue publication because the Magazine had, on account of increased production costs, been published at a loss for several years. Fortunately the £250 copyright was purchased by a group of horticulturists and presented to the Royal Horticultural Society. After a year's delay, the next issue, dated 1922, was published by the Royal Horticultural Society under the editorship of Dr Otto Stapf, who had just retired from the staff of Kew.

For the next thirty years most of the drawings and lithographs (the latter made on specially prepared zinc plates rather than on limestone) were made by Miss Lilian Snelling and Miss Stella Ross-Craig (who was appointed page 67 as additional artist in 1932). Today, the journal is still published by the Royal Horticultural Society, in close association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Margaret Stones, who was born in Australia, became artist to the Botanical Magazine in 1955 and since that time she has produced most of the plates for it. Martyn Rix {The Art of the Botanist, 1981) has described Miss Stones as "probably the foremost botanical illustrator living today". Her beautifully composed watercolours almost bring the plants to life, and her eye for fine detail is unrivalled. She uses a single brush hair for inserting the finest detail, and in some watercolours one needs a magnifying lens to fully appreciate their detailed accuracy.

Sadly, as this book was going to press, it was learned that Curtis's Botanical Magazine no longer exists, at least in name. It has been incorporated in a new quarterly, Kew Magazine, the first issue of which appeared in May 1984. The new journal will continue to publish "life-size plant portraits painted by the most celebrated botanical artists".